Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation, Gavin Ortlund. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.
Summary: A study of Augustine’s writing about creation and what that might contribute to the contemporary controversy.
Imagine a gathering with a young earth creationist, an old earth creationist, and an evolutionary creationist. Fireworks, right? Now imagine that Augustine time-travels from the late 4th-early 5th century and sits down with this group. What would he contribute to the discussion and how might he offer unique perspectives? These are the questions Gavin Ortlund explores in this new work.
First of all, Ortlund observes that Augustine helps us to step back from the controversy to consider the sheer wonder of creation. God created, not out of need, but his extravagant goodness. Augustine was absorbed with creation, believed it mirrored our own purpose of being created for God and finding rest in God, a theme he develops at the end of The Confessions. Indeed, for Augustine, the doctrine of creation was not an optional prequel to theology but absolutely foundational.
While not afraid to speak from conviction about the goodness of creation when faced with the dualism of Manichaean heresy, Augustine urges humility and the avoidance of rashness in interpretations, admitting where he thinks several views are equally possible. He exemplifies this with his own careful handling of Genesis 1, and his rejection of literal twenty-four hour days because of difficulties within the text including fitting all the events of day five into twenty-four hours.
Augustine also offers different perspectives on the problem of animal death and suffering. Responding to Manichaean ideas, he defends the goodness of predation. He also proposes the idea of perspectival prejudice, in which our local perspective often obscures the larger picture.
Finally, Ortlund looks at Augustine’s writing on Genesis 2 and 3 concerning the question of a historic Adam and fall. Augustine both admits the literary complexities of the text and his convictions about the historic character of Adam and the fall in the garden, while leaving room for figurative interpretations.
In one sense, Augustine can’t resolve the differences between the contemporary “camps.” He was unaware of the science to which contemporary interpreters respond in differing ways. By modern standards, some of his exegetical conclusions would be ones to which many would take exception. Yet Ortlund proposes that Augustine offers perspective that may enrich and change the tone and character of these discussions. He reminds us of the wonder of God’s work in creation. He exhibits an uncharacteristic humility, admitting both what he knows and does not, speaking with conviction about what is clear, and peaceably and humbly the matters on which interpreters may differ. In such areas, he exhibits a flexibility and openness contemporary scholars might emulate. Ortlund also shows us a careful scholar dedicated to rigorous study to understand what scripture affirms. These dispositions would not resolve our conflicts, but would create a character of conversation that would be God-honoring.
Ortlund’s concern focuses on the conversation between Christians. But wonder, humility, and rigor of study are also dispositions characterizing dedicated scientists. The animus between faith and science that has existed may well be rendered unnecessary if more on both sides emulated Augustine. We cannot invite him to the table except by mining his writings. Ortlund offers a study of Augustine’s writings worthy of Augustine’s dispositions.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.